Rifle and cartridge SNAFU's

A few years ago I was accompanying Hubertus Dowidat of RWS and a jaeger on a hunt for damhirsch in Schleswig Holstein, North Germany. On the third afternoon we came across a fine pair of fallow bucks, chose which one to shoot and stalked to within 250, metres under the cover of the pine forest. After the jaeger took great care to remove all the lower branches of the tree I was lying under to make sure I had a clear field of fire, I got ready to shoot.

Slowly, I raised the rifle I had on loan, an 8x68S and rested the fore-end on my left hand. The buck was standing right out in the open. It was an easy shot. The crosswires steadied on the deer’s chest, and I pressed the trigger. There was nothing but a click!

Slowly I worked the bolt to eject the cartridge. There was barely an indentation on the primer. Easing a fresh round into the chamber, I brought the crosswires to bear once more, but again all I got was a click. Thankfully, the deer had not been alerted by the sound of the firing pin falling. I lifted and lowered the bolt handle and tried again. This time the deadly 8x58S barked. The deer dropped on the spot.

Just as well I’m not a nervous type. The rifle I’d borrowed belonged to Hubertus, who’d neglected to tell me in advance that the rifle’s firing mechanism had proved faulty on a recent trip to Namibia.

Another time in Oz my companion suffered a similar mishap when his rifle failed to fire causing him to miss an exceptional red stag. My mate was shaken by the experience. It was the first handloaded cartridge he’d ever fired at game. On that trip he shot a lesser stag and other game without suffering another misfire. Nevertheless he lost confidence in handloaded ammunition. He swore he’d only use the stuff for target shooting and stick to factory ammo when trophy hunting.

What went wrong?

Search me! Since he had pelted the cartridge into the long grass, there was no way to tell. Most likely the primer was defective, something not uncommon 40 years ago. Maybe it had no anvil. Maybe there was no priming compound in it. He was a pretty careful handloader, but these things have been known to happen.

Once I was hunting in the U.S with the head honcho of a big company that makes both guns and ammunition. We were using the pilot model of a new rifle that was due to be released a short time later. It had been fired only in proofing and to sight-in. We climbed aboard a pair of shaggy mountain ponies and rode off into the Rockies where we spotted and successfully stalked to within range of a bull elk. He sprawled out on the ground with the rifle rested on his pack, lined up on the game, pressed the trigger - and nothing happened!

The next cartridge fired and the elk dropped, and for the rest of the trip the rifle functioned perfectly. The rest of the cartridges all fired and when his aim was steady, he hit what he shot at. But he was worried. When he got back to the factory, he took the faulty cartridge and the box it was in, but although the technicians fired several hundred cartridges of the same lot in the pilot rifle, they never experienced a single misfire. They finally put the problem down to a faulty primer.

The chances of a centrefire cartridge failing to fire today is almost unheard of. We take this as a given. We shoot them, carry them rattling about loose in the glove box, reload them. They are as foolproof as it’s possible to get them - a triumph of precision manufacture. Failures such as the examples I’ve given are almost unknown today - probably less than one in several hundred thousand. I’ve been reloading my ammo for 60 years and in all that time I can only remember two or three failures to fire, each one caused by a faulty primer.

Primers often caused a snafu. In the aftermath of World War II, it was not unusual for the head of the cartridge to come off and leave the body of the shell stuck in the chamber. This came about because a lot of the rifles in use were hastily cobbled up ex-military clunkers and the ammunition were either ancient military stuff often 40 or 50 years old or handloads made up on fired cases made brittle by being fired with corrosive primers.

A lot of ex-military .303 and .30-06 ammo had primers containing mercury or potassium chloride a substance akin to common table salt - sodium chloride. This attracted moisture and caused rust. even if a rifle bore were wiped out and oiled, it would eventually rust under the oil film. Until that time, bores of black powder rifles were cleaned with water, which dissolved the primer salts and rusting was no problem. Back in the days when I was range shooting we used to clean the bores of our Lee Enfield rifles by pouring hot water through the bore or pumping it up and down with a tight patch while the muzzle was held in a tin of hot water. This dissolved the potassium chloride salts and then we oiled the bore while the barrel was still hot.

The first non-corrosive primers appeared in the late 1920’s, but most of the first ones contained mercury, which ruined cases by making them brittle and unfit for reloading. Military ammo for the .303 used mercuric primers and when I wanted to use once- fired brass from the range to form .303-25 cases, I first soaked them in a pot of boiling water which neutralized the primer residue and then dried them in a slow oven.

Most of the M2 .30-06 ammo used in World War II was loaded with the old rust-causing but dependable potassium chlorate primers. Before we necked fired ‘06 cases down to form .25-06 or .270 Winchester cases, we had to give them the hot water treatment. If left as fired, partial and complete head separations often cropped up and put the rifle out of commission in the field. Some guys carried a gadget called a broken shell extractor. This gadget had a head for the extractor of the rifle to get a grip on. It reached in, expanded around the mouth of the case. Then by manipulating the bolt, you could extract the broken case.

The introduction of lead styphnate resulted in reliable, long-lived, sensitive rust-free primers which eliminated the odd dud or a hangfire. Today, brass in cartridge cases is that good and primers non-corrosive so that head separations seldom happen. Whenever I hear of a head separation these days it is usually caused by excessive full-length sizing of a cartridge case, where the chamber is maximum and the sizing die brings the case back to minimum dimensions every time. This overworks the brass near the head making it brittle. Then the result is a partial or complete head separation.

The only time this happened to me was on a guided hunt for wapiti. It came as the result of having full-length sized some .308 Norma cases too many times. Luckily the shot was good, but when I worked the bolt, only the head of the case came out. When I got back to camp, I removed the broken case. How? Well I didn’t have a broken shell extractor, but I did have a one-piece cleaning rod and a bronze brush. By pushing the brush through the barrel’s muzzle until the bristles caught forward edge of the case I was able to push it out. Most of the time, however, after the broken case has had time to cool and contract a little it will fall out of the chamber if the bolt is removed, the rifle held muzzle up, and the butt gently bumped against a solid surface. Chances are you’ll never see a head separation, but it’s still a good idea to include a bronze brush in your cleaning kit.

It happens rarely but now and then through some snafu, even in these days of precision manufacture, some ammo comes through that isn’t just right. Companies issue a recall notice in the shooting magazines and offer to replace the faulty ammo free of charge. One sad case was a lot of Weatherby ammo (.270, 7mm and .300) that appeared on the market a few years ago made by a Korean company. A guy I knew bought a new Weatherby Mark V rifle and set out to sight it in with this ammo. The rifle blew up! In this case I believe the metallurgy of the brass was at fault.

Another time an American outfit let much ammo that had too heavy a powder charge hit the market. How this happened I have no idea, but maybe the powder metering device on the machine got out of synch. Anyway, the ammo generated excessive pressure. On a cold winter’s day the boys could get the fired cases out of their guns, but on a hot summer’s day when a hunter took a shot at game with a heated-up cartridge he had been carrying around at 50 degrees Celsius, the extractor would tear through the rim and leave the fired case stuck in the chamber, and the hunter out of action. I might add, the same thing happens when the handloader gets a little too enthusiastic about velocity.

Actually good brass cases can vary somewhat dimensionally without causing much trouble, particularly in a bolt-action rifle. If the case is slightly undersize, good modern brass will expand to fit the chamber without pulling the head off. If it is a bit oversize the camming power of the bolt will squeeze it down a little so that it will go in.

Using a gauge that measures the head-to-shoulder length of .270and .30-06 cases I’ve found as much as .015 inch difference in the head-to-shoulder measurements of factory cases. That is greater than the Go and No-Go headspace gauges for the same cartridges which are 1.940 and 1.946. Since I discovered this, I haven’t been so worried about a bit of excess headspace.

Putting an under-minimum .30-06 cartridge in a maximum chamber measuring 1.945 results in a good deal of headspace. However, it’s rare that anything bad happens. Suppose, however, that you have a chamber like that and a sizing die that brings the case back to 1.932 (below minimum each time), a few full- length resizings will cause the case to pull in two.

No two chambers in the same calibre are exactly alike, even when cut consecutively with the same reamer. Sometimes with a slight forcing, cartridges fired in two rifles can be used in both withoutfull-length resizing, but generally cases fired in one rifle will chamber too hard in the other chamber, or won’t chamber at all. One chamber will be slightly longer than the other, slightly fatter, or different in some other way.

Sometimes cases fired in either rifle will not chamber easily in the other. That is why reloaded cartridges to be used in hunting should be full-length resized, particularly if anyone owns more than one rifle of the same calibre. It is easy to mix cartridges up, and a too-fat cartridge that sticks in the chamber may ruin a hunt.

It’s a rather poor idea to try to fire cartridges of one calibre in a chamber of another, although sometimes it can be done. On a goat hunt a couple of years ago I couldn’t hit anything with my 7mm Mauser, then I’d found I’d grabbed the wrong box of cartridges. They were .257 Roberts reloads and the bullets fairly rattled through the 7mm’s barrel. This was safe enough as except for the neck, .257 and 7mm Mauser chamber dimensions are almost identical.

I went hunting once with a mate who took along a 7.62x54 Moisin Nagant rifle and a supply of .303 cartridges. Often the extractor will hold a short cartridge against the blow of the firing pin in a much-too-large chamber. Most of the problems with modern brass cases can be associated with sloppy reloading techniques, rather than any failings in manufacture, and noncorrosive primers are a surefire thing.

Today, factory-made centerfire cartridges made anywhere in the world are a triumph of technical excellence, the culmination of many years of experience and careful development. Any snafu can generally be laid at the door of the reloader.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, September 2011.

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